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Whereas employment tribunals are a reserved matter under the Scotland Act 1998, legal aid rules have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. One of the advantages of devolution is that the various Administrations can learn from each other. This is an example of where the Government here could learn from the Scottish Executive and adopt similar rules to those introduced by the Scottish Executive to make legal aid available for a small number of complex cases.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): May I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that we already go further than the Scottish Executive? With the exceptional funding arrangements that we have here, cases that have a significant wider public interest could also receive legal aid. That is not the case in Scotland.
To conclude, I shall not be supporting the Bill today. I do not believe that this new quango is necessary. The hon. Member for Bradford, West has raised an important issue, but I do not believe that the Bill and a new quango are the right way forward.
Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab):
The arguments for the establishment of the tribunal representation and assistance board, as proposed in the Bill, appear in many cases and on an initial consideration to have some merit in ensuring that applicants in discrimination cases brought before the employment tribunals and appeal tribunals have access to legal advice and representation. Some of the arguments that we have heard and that we will hear in the debate are valuable.
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The Bill would provide for legal advice and representation whereas the Legal Services Commission generally only provides for advice and not representation. Indeed, the LSC provides its assistance only after testing for eligibility, and representation can be made only in exceptional circumstances. Such circumstances applied to only six cases between 2000 and today. The fact that legal aid is, as we have heard, available only for employment tribunal appeals and not at the tribunal appears to draw one towards the arguments for the Bill. Experienced representatives could arguably make it easier to present the applicant's case and the Bill's point about the ability to charge for representation is, if taken at face value, a useful proposition. It argues that it could create a revenue stream.
Labour Members also support the argument that this Government have introduced more rights since 1997, and we are very proud of that. We applaud the House for taking that opportunity. As a consequence of that, there must be a necessary growth in the number of tribunals.
I have outlined the face-value merits of the Bill, but we must also consider the arguments against it in evaluating the proposals. As we have heard, many cases do not require legal representation and, in those instances, the advice offered will duplicate the services already provided by the Legal Services Commission. It is that body's responsibility to ensure that not just legal advice but "quality assured legal advice" is delivered. We must also be aware of the fact that the equality commissions can fund legal representation, but I reiterate that, in most cases, legal help and advice is sufficient. Legal representation is not a necessary service. We must also consider the fact that such duplication would create an extra layer of bureaucracy and lead to additional expenditure.
It is argued that the proposed tribunal representation and assistance board could be a revenue earner, but what evidence do we have that clients who were liable for costs incurred would use the service instead of alternative legal specialists? What would be the attraction of receiving a bill from the board instead of one from somewhere else?
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the fact that people must at the moment go through many hoops to get to an employment tribunal tends to suggest that such people feel strongly that they have a good case? However, only 29 per cent. of discrimination cases that reach a tribunal succeed, only 28 per cent. of such sex discrimination cases succeed, and only 15 per cent. of such race discrimination cases succeed. How does he respond to the argument that by setting up this new quango we would be encouraging a plethora of new tribunal cases that might be much weaker than those that are brought forward at the moment?
The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) says that there are loads of hoops to go through, but there is nothing to stop anyone from going to a tribunal with any sort of case under any circumstances, although that does not necessarily mean
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that they will get anywhere with such cases. In my previous job, I was involved in a lot of tribunals in which the case reached the first stage before being thrown out, but there was nothing to stop someone from taking a case to that stage.
Gordon Banks: No eligibility criteria are set out in the Bill, which would mean that claimants who could clearly fund their own cases would often be supported, which would not be a good use of public funds. On examination, I am not convinced by the promises of additional revenue delivery that are made of the Bill.
There are already well-established bodies and mechanisms that offer people valuable and indispensable advice, such as trade unions and citizens advice bureaux. Indeed, friends and colleagues can give people advice. Additionally, as a plank of their delivery in this area, the Government have attempted to ensure that more disputes are resolved before they need to reach a tribunal. However, the Bill might increase the number of legal representations made and reduce the number of outcomes reached through negotiation.
The Bill would give the proposed new board the power to set its budget and force the Lord Chancellor to meet that. It could be argued that unmeritorious claims would be funded as well as justifiable ones, so we must ask whether that would be a good use of the public purse.
I support both our aim of improving advice and assistance given at an early stage to reduce the number of cases that progress to the courts, and alternative ways to settle disputes in the workplace. The English and Welsh civil and social justice survey showed an increase in the proportion of cases that were resolved in such a way at a time when the actual number of cases for which advice was received was falling. We certainly seem to be getting the advice and support argument right and more focused.
The Government are launching a new tribunals service in 2006 and employment tribunals and the Employment Appeal Tribunal will come under the agency at that time. That will increase our opportunity of having an even-handed and responsive service that delivers to people reliability, consistency and dependability, yet is also properly resourced, accountable and transparent.
A problem with the Bill is the fact that it limits itself to cases of discrimination. Are not cases of unfair dismissal, unauthorised deduction, breach of contract and redundancy pay equally meritorious, given that they and other associated non-discriminatory cases accounted for nearly 82 per cent. of all employment tribunal claims in 200405?
We need to go further on enforcing settlements made at tribunals by removing the legal onus on complainants to pursue their awards, if they are not forthcoming in the agreed time, and by introducing a system that empowers the tribunal service or another body to instigate action automatically on behalf of a complainant at the appropriate time. However, I realise that that debate is not for todayhopefully, it is for another time in the Chamber.
Given that I represent a Scottish constituency, I should comment about the comparison that has been drawn today with the situation in Scotland. Although
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the Scottish Parliament has increased funding and legal aid, which addresses some of the problems raised today, there are few similarities between the functionality of the system and the Bill's proposals. I reiterate a point that I attempted to make during an intervention. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) is arguing the need for justice, he is failing to argue appropriately for efficient and transparent spending from the public purse. Indeed, I believe that he showed in some depth today the success, rather than failure, of the present system and methods. I remain to be convinced that the Bill's proposals would deliver value for money and the transparency that is demanded today, or help those most in need in the most appropriate manner.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I am somewhat loth to make a speech opposing the Bill because Labour Members seem to be doing a perfectly good job of that without my having to intervene on their private grief.
The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) is my neighbouring MP. He is a good man and people in Bradford respect him enormously, but his Bill is completely misguided, both in principle and practice. He believes that current arrangements breach the Human Rights Act 1998, but some Conservative Members do not care too much about that because we were not big fans of the Act in the first place.
The Bill would be likely only to add to this country's compensation culture. People are sick and tired of frivolous claims being taken to court just to line the pockets of lawyers. The hon. Gentleman said that the Bill would result in the exact opposite of a feeding frenzy for employment lawyers, but I do not understand how it could lead to anything but that.
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